When teenagers choose different dietary paths from their parents—and they often do—it can trigger awkward family dynamics. Don’t take it personally, says vegan author and chef Colleen Patrick-Goudreau. “They’re making a decision using the skills you gave them,” she says. “It’s not about you.” If you have a vegan teen, look for resources and information together, and employ the following tips.
Stock up. Because teenagers often grab snacks in place of sit-down meals, stock the pantry and fridge with healthy vegan foods that don’t require much preparation: trail mix, vegan pizza, hummus wraps, fortified plant milks and juices, bagels with peanut or almond butter, instant soups, soy or coconut yogurt, granola bars, and seasoned baked tofu. Some vegan meal replacements offer an excellent ready-to-drink option, especially useful for vegan teens looking for a quick way to replenish energy after school or sports practices.
Tweak your meals. Rather than create a separate, special meal for your vegan eater, provide twists on your usual favorites. Serve bean burritos with various toppings, including vegan shredded cheese and guacamole. Reserve a portion of spaghetti sauce before adding meat. Keep the freezer stocked with veggie burgers, and keep canned vegetarian baked beans and meatless chili in the pantry for quick mealtime substitutions.
Keep an eye on key nutrients. Eating a hearty variety of vegetables, fats, and legumes will naturally supply your teen’s body with most nutrients. But there are a few exceptions. Pay particular attention to nutrient-dense food combinations, and when all else fails, suggest (rather than demand) that your teen take supplements of any low-intake nutrients—especially those listed here, recommends Virginia Messina, MPH, RD, author of Vegan for Her (Da Capo Lifelong, 2013).
Ensure calcium. Although teenagers can get the recommended 1,300 mg daily calcium on vegan diets—especially if they enjoy dark leafy greens (broccoli, bok choy, kale, collard greens), fortifed tofu, blackstrap molasses, and calcium-fortifed orange juice and plant milks—those who aren’t getting enough from food may need a supplement.
Eye iodine. Omnivores receive most of their iodine, essential for thyroid health, from dairy or iodized salt. (Vegetables contain iodine, too, but in inconsistent levels.) If your teen eats vegan, dash small amounts of iodized salt over food or provide an iodine supplement of 90–150 mcg two to three times per week, advises Messina.
Combine iron with C. Although vegans often consume more iron than omnivores, Messina says, plant-food iron, such as that in beans and spinach, isn’t as well absorbed as that in meat sources. Solution: Pack the fridge with vitamin C–rich foods, including citrus fruits and juices, strawberries, washed and cut-up bell peppers, broccoli, and cauliflower. With every iron-rich meal, add something with vitamin C to aid absorption—especially important for teenage girls. For example, mix tomatoes into bean soup or sauté spinach with a splash of orange juice.
Go for plant omega-3s. Cold-water fish is the omega-3s star; walnuts, hemp, and flaxseed contain short-chain versions of these healthy fats, but in a less bioavailable form. Your teen can supplement with 1,000 mg docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) sourced from microalgae—the same place fish get these essential fats
Take vitamin B12. Plants don’t contain this micronutrient, so vegan teens (as well as people older than 50) should take a vitamin B12 supplement of at least 25 mcg per day to maintain healthy blood production. B12 supplements are naturally vegan because B12 is bacteria-produced.
Absorb vitamin D. Most people, including teens, who aren’t getting enough sunlight need vitamin D, says Messina. In addition to getting your teen unplugged and outside more often to soak up D-producing sunlight, consider vitamin D supplements. Typical multivitamins don’t provide enough; take capsules or drops that provide 600–1,000 IU daily.